Posture & Pilates

What is posture?

Usually when we think of posture we think stand up straight. But this isn’t entirely correct. The thing to remember is the very few parts of the body stand straight up.

The body is designed around curves, which is a fantastic system. These curves allow the body to balance, bear weight and shock absorb so as not to damage itself.

From the skeleton to the muscles to our DNA the body consists of curved or S shaped patterns.

This method of design can be seen in up and down, forward and back and rotational movements. Look at someone squatting down, the feet, knees and chest are forward while the heels, hips and head are back. This provides one with balance, strength and flexibility, explosive power and fluidity of movement.

Think of old Action Man or Barbie dolls and how straight legs, arms and torsos lead to stiff and awkward movement. But we still haven’t answered the question.

Posture is using the body correctly, standing and sitting tall, lying long. When we have good posture we should not feel like there is an iron rod up our backs, we should feel grounded to the floor, relaxed and fluid in movement, as if each part of our bodies are sitting comfortably on top of one another, drawn up as if by invisible strings yet free to move and most of all we should feel relaxed.

The key to good posture is relaxation. Forcing the body into what we are told or believe is good posture is not the way. If we have poor posture then we should try to move toward better posture which may feel unusual or uncomfortable at first, but never tiring or painful.

The way to good posture is relaxation, flexibility and strength. Poor or bad posture is usually caused when the body is forced into an uncomfortable position, either through a repetitive action or injury, which it then adapts to.

Forcing the body back into correct posture will only cause further pain and incorrect adaptation. Developing our flexibility, allowing the body to move, strength, to hold the new position, and allowing ourselves to relax, giving the body a chance to adapt to this new state, are the ways to good posture.

Remaining in this relaxed state during movement is the key to maintaining correct posture. Often while standing, sitting or lying down still, one can achieve a sense of comfortable posture, but when we move our old habits and tensions creep back in.

Benefits of Good Posture

Posture is maintained by the balancing of muscles and bones to hold the body in the best possible position. So naturally the first benefits are to muscles and bones. Correct posture can reduce stress on the muscles related to posture and the muscles that are usually recruited when those muscles become weak through lack of use or tight and strained due to overuse. The resulting pressure can lead to imbalances in muscles which in turn can lead to a more permanent alteration of the skeletal structure.

Direct examples of this are Scoliosis, a lateral curve in the spine usually in an S shape, although sometimes in a C shape. Although some people are born with this condition, others can develop it through poor posture, one of the main causes being carrying a bag on one shoulder for years, like at school say.

In most cases the curve is reversible, if caught early enough, using exercise. Kyphosis, an over-rounding of the upper spine leading to a hunched looked. Again this can be treated with exercise provided there is still some flexibility in the spine.

Cranial displacement where the head is slightly out of place with the spine or shoulders. It can be in any direction but most often it is to the front and can accompany Kyphosis. When the head shifts position like this it can lead clumsiness and poor balance, one may adapt to the new position but if it is being corrected the same symptoms may return until the body re-adapts.

This is most clearly seen in pregnant women, when the relaxing of ligaments and the presence of the foetus can create poor posture and displace the head until after the pregnancy. Pilates is very useful in helping to maintain mobility and return to good posture during and after pregnancy, but more on that later.

So that’s the muscles and bones, but what about the rest of the body. The structure of the body is there to carry, protect and feed the organs and brain, and to get rid of any waste materials. It is closed system, that is to say the heart and lungs are kept in a pressurized container, the lungs act like balloons in jar, they only inflate if you increase the air in the jar. Our “jar” is made of muscle and bone.

The stomach and liver and intestines are all housed in a cylinder of muscle, and blood flows through arteries and veins which pass by, over, under and through muscle and bone. Muscle movement actually helps blood return to the heart through the veins.

So what happens when we have poor posture? The alteration in the shape of the chest can make breathing more difficult and as a result less oxygen gets to the blood, if there is less oxygen in the blood then less oxygen gets to the rest of the body. The change in posture causes some muscles to become tight and others to relax, the tighter muscles can restrict blood flow around the body and cause higher blood pressure, the relaxed muscles can make it more difficult for blood to get back to the heart also increasing blood pressure and leading to varicose veins.

These two things combined can lead to a lack of blood and oxygen to the brain which can cause poor memory, inattention, dizziness, slower reaction time, to name a few. Restricted flow of blood or hormones to and from the brain can also cause tiredness, fatigue and a low feeling. If the abdominal area is compressed it can also be affected, leading to constipation, diarrhoea, incontinence, impotence or amenorrhea.

Finally any of these conditions themselves from muscles and bone, to intestinal problems, to poor circulation, to injury through movement, lifting or pulling, or through poor co-ordination or balance can cause pain, but the squeezing or trapping of a nerve due to poor posture, most notably the Sciatic nerve, can be extremely painful.

The benefits therefore of good posture are many; better circulation; improved breathing; reduced blood pressure; better balance and co-ordination; better muscle tone and structural alignment; more alert and awake state; better hormone balance; improved energy and mood; reduction in the chance of injury due to poor body mechanics and more.

Causes of Poor Posture

The causes of poor posture are often a lack of due care, the stresses and strains of life. Postures are developed as we grow up in the way we use our bodies and the sports, games or activities we take part in. Lifting, pulling, pushing, standing, walking and lying down, all these things can affect posture over time. Some postural problems are the result of major injury or illness, which cause us to use our bodies in different ways to avoid pain or alter our shape due to sickness or just genetics.

Many people who take up Pilates are referred by physiotherapists for recovery from an injury. But many times the injury only helped to highlight the area where a poor postural change had occurred. Sometimes the injury site is not the cause of or area of poor posture, but the result of it.

Most postural problems occur due to a lack of balance like when we do one thing too much. That’s fine if you only do that thing. If you sit hunched over at a desk all day then chances are you will get rounded shoulders, kyphosis and cranial displacement, not to mention possible carpal tunnel and varicose veins.

If you never did anything where standing up with your shoulders back or shoulder flexibility was a requirement then you may never notice. But when you do decide to take a dance class or swimming lesson you may discover a problem. The classic examples of lack of balance in training are tennis elbow, golfers elbow and hamstring problems in footballers.

Constantly training only one way leads to imbalances that will lead to problems, hence why more and more athletes are cross-training to avoid such problems. But good posture is not a one of thing, like the problems of weight gain and loss people want a quick and easy way.

Good posture is something that must be achieved over time and with some little effort, and then maintained. It is however easier to keep good posture than it is to get it and once you have it you have the benefits too.

Posture Exercise:

1. Finding good posture:

Stand or sit with your feet hip distance apart, in line with the hip joints rather than the hip bones. Keep your knees soft, or slightly bent, and try to balance your weight equally on both feet. Then lift your toes to find three weight bearing points on each foot, behind the big toe, small toe and the heel. Balance the weight equally on each point so the weight is equal over all six.

Keep the knees soft, and tilt the pelvis up and down at the front making the spine flatten and arch. Go back and forth several times and find the mid-point, neutral spine.

Roll your shoulders up and back several times and then let them relax back, to open the chest, and down, away from the ears.

Finally breathe in and raise the head as if it was being drawn up from a hook in the centre of the head. Don’t turn, lift or tilt the head. Once you’ve drawn up breath out and relax your shoulders again and settle the wait in your feet. If you are sitting settle the weight into your sit bones.

The main point here is to stay relaxed, you should feel like all your weight is travelling through the centre of your feet and then each part is stacked on top of the other.